Protesters shout slogans and hold placards during a demonstration against India's new citizenship law in Mumbai on December 19, 2019. Indians defied bans on assembly on December 19 in cities nationwide as anger swells against a citizenship law seen as discriminatory against Muslims, following days of protests, clashes and riots that have left six dead. PHOTO: Punit PARANJPE / AFP
The strains of the ongoing nationwide protests across India appear to have reached an annual arts festival in Goa, a prominent multi-disciplinary arts event that has several works of art and media from across South Asia. On Wednesday, at the Serendipity Arts Festival, four musicians were arrested for “performing songs that insult the Hindu religion”, while a group art exhibition was shut down after several slogans against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) were seen scribbled on a blank canvas.
The musicians belong to a rock band called Dastaan Live, and were booked under Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code (hurting religious sentiments)—which gets one a maximum punishment of three years—for performing a song at the DB Ground in Panjim. The complainant, a Supreme Court advocate, claims that their songs included “Om with abusive language”, and that they were “misusing the platform of Serendipity Arts Festival 2019” by insulting a religion. The artists—Sumant Balakrishnan, Anirban Ghose, Shiv Pathak and Nirmala Ravindera—could not be reached for a comment, but reports say that they were released on bail by the magistrate court after they deposited a surety of Rs 20,000.Subhash Gaonkar, the investigating officer on the case, told The Indian Express, that the musicians were “called for questioning and arrested by 2.30 PM.” While the festival organisers have not responded to this, musician Sneha Khanwalkar, who curated the segment in which Dastaan Live performed, told The Indian Express that she never had a set list for the performers, and that they were free to choose their own songs. “Personally speaking, the artists are free to express themselves, it’s up to the listeners to make sense of it,” she said.The exhibition, on the other hand, was curated by prominent Indian artist Sudarshan Shetty, in which several works by different artists and organisations were showcased. The one that ruffled feathers was reportedly a work titled Air Ink by Delhi-based Graviky Labs, who convert carbon emissions into ink. Air Ink is a blank canvas upon which the visitors could put down whatever they liked. Reports say that visitors scribbled anti-CAA slogans on it instead, leading to the shutting down of the exhibition for two hours, and then reopening with the room that held the canvases shut. A caption stating that an artwork did not arrive because of “CAB protests in the North-East” was also removed. In the meantime, the organisers attributed the above to “technical glitch”.
Yet another artwork by Miyah poets (poets from Assam’s Bengali-Muslim community, who are in the middle of the ongoing National Register of Citizens controversy) Hafiz Ahmed and Ashraful Hussain, was also reportedly not working. The work included verses in the poets’ own dialect in which they chronicle “violence, discrimination, apathy and threat of statelessness due to the changing sociopolitical climate in India”—all of which highlight the current situation across the country.
VICE reached out to Shetty, who said that despite the events that have transpired over the last 24 hours, he stands by the artists and the artwork. “Why a caption—saying an artwork could not reach on time for the exhibition due to transportation delays or due to CAB protests in the North East—should be a problem,” he said in a statement sent over text. “Or why a few scribbles on a white wall about the CAB/NRC by exhibition visitors using the ecologically sustained carbon ink pens, or two poems of lament about the NRC and politics about immigration by poor men who have lost their family members to violence, should have upset/disturbed/frightened people is difficult to accept. I feel troubled and pained at the situation we have come to.”As the police now await footage from the organisers about the musicians’ performance, and is looking to call witnesses to “confirm if it hurt their sentiments”, there’s much to be said about how art and its varied expressions have been under threat for a while now. The last few years have seen quite a dip in the level of tolerance. And this is not even the first time this has happened.In the recent past, we have seen attacks on LGBTQ+ artists; writers who touch upon subjects such as traditions and culture, or, worse, religion and Indian history; and even filmmakers. Remember when a criminal complaint was filed against authors Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi for reading out from Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses at the 2012 edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival? As our shrinking art and media spaces shrink even further—thanks to the ever-increasing tribe of moral police and the government’s penchant for restricting what we see and hear—it’s important for alternate spaces to exist so that healthy dissent could thrive. Says Shetty, “Art spaces should be allowed to function freely and openly and must allow for free speech.”Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.